Out of the Zoo: Hamilton’s Deathbed Conversion

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Alexander Hamilton’s grave in Trinity Church Cemetery.

Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie writes about her paper on Alexander Hamilton’s religious faith. –JF

My “Age of Hamilton” class is well into its second act. After taking a couple weeks to discuss the musical Hamilton, we took a deep dive into the life of America’s 10-dollar founding father. We started off the semester discussing Hamilton’s childhood in the West Indies and his education in New Jersey and New York. Next we paraded through the Revolutionary war alongside Alexander.  Then we discussed his contributions to the Constitution—at the Constitutional Convention and through the 51 Federalist papers that he wrote. At long last we’ve reached what seems to be the pinnacle of the course—Hamilton’s stint as the first secretary of the treasury—and soon enough we will come to Weehawken New Jersey, the stage of his fatal duel with Aaron Burr.

As “Age of Hamilton” reaches its close in the next month or so, my classmates and I will be striving to finish our lengthy research papers for the course. As we scramble to gather sources and organize our thoughts for the assignment, we surely have gained a new understanding of the question Hamilton repeatedly poses: “Why do you write like you’re running out of time?” Nonetheless, our minds are “at work” as we seek to flesh out various aspects of Alexander Hamilton’s life.

As you can imagine, the topics my classmates and I are pursuing for this assignment are quite diverse. My friend Chloe is researching Hamilton’s relationship with fellow revolutionary John Laurens. Another fellow history major is writing on Hamilton’s role in the Battle of Monmouth. My roommate Rachel is learning about 18th-century courtship for her paper, and several more classmates are researching the Reynolds Affair. While all of these potential topics intrigued me, I decided to take the semester to inquire into Alexander Hamilton’s religious faith.

My paper thus far is centered around Hamilton’s “deathbed conversion,” an event which, even after hours of research, still fascinates me. I’ve recently discovered that a large portion of Hamilton’s career was characterized by the apparent absence of religious devotion. Yet, at the end of his life, after a fatal shot through the abdomen from the pistol of Aaron Burr, Hamilton asked multiple times to receive communion from his deathbed. Hamilton first requested the sacraments from Episcopal bishop Reverend Benjamin Moore, who denied Hamilton’s wishes because he did not condone the practice of dueling.  Hamilton then turned to Presbyterian minister John Mason, who, like Moore, also refused. After some time though, Reverend Moore returned to Hamilton’s bedside and obliged to administer communion.

As I worked on this project over the weekend, I’ve realized there is still much work to do. I’ve researched and written some about Hamilton’s exposure to religion throughout his life, and have continued my inquiry into his “deathbed conversion.” Yet, at this point I am left with more questions than answers. What did Hamilton really believe about God? Why were the sacraments so important to him that he still desired them even after being turned down twice? Where will Hamilton spend eternity? Surely not all of these questions belong in my paper, but my research has led me to ask them nonetheless. As I seek solutions to some of these questions, I’m starting to realize that most will not be so easily answered. Some people living today cannot even articulate what they believe about God; therefore it’s no easy task to do the same for someone who died over 200 years ago. Thus, I will try my best to tread carefully, to keep my eyes open, and to do justice to the complexity that defined every aspect of Hamilton’s life, religious and otherwise.